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“Our incomes in North Dakota have grown faster than any other state. And that’s what we really need to do, is encourage that, because it lifts all ships,” Berg said in an interview.
The situation makes for a different kind of campaign in North Dakota, where candidates tend to run more positive messages. Campaign advertisements have focused more on biography and personality than a looming financial armageddon.
There’s a similarly strong economy in Nebraska, which had an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent in April. A strong commodities market boosts the agricultural sector, plus state law requires a balanced budget every year. But even there, voters cite the economy as their primary concern in public polls.
It’s a struggle for Democrats to explain, said former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D), who faces a tough race against state Sen. Deb Fischer (R) for the open seat.
“Democrats find themselves on the defensive,” Kerrey said. “Moreover, the focus tends to be more on deficits — and it’s harder for Democrats to make the case that we haven’t contributed to those deficits because of stimulus and [the Troubled Asset Relief Program].”
To make matters more difficult for Kerrey, popular Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) counts Fischer as an ally in state government. He argued that her eight-year career in the legislature serves as a positive, given the state’s economic climate.
“She’s been a leader at our state level to get this stuff done,” said Heineman, the head of the National Governors Association. “There’s a feeling of pride [here], a feeling of optimism, that I don’t always see in other states.”
Beyond Senate races in the Plains, there are competitive House races in a few other states with strong economic situations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the following battleground states have unemployment rates under 6 percent: New Hampshire (5 percent), Iowa (5.1 percent) and Minnesota (5.7 percent).
But in those states, too, it’s difficult for either party to take credit for a strong economy — especially for candidates seeking federal office. Republicans control the state legislatures in two of the three states, and there are Democratic governors in Minnesota and New Hampshire.
In Virginia, the two parties are deadlocked in a top Senate race between former Sen. George Allen (R) and former Gov. Tim Kaine (D). Polls have shown a tied race for months.
The commonwealth weathered the recession and now boasts a 5.6 percent unemployment rate. That’s in part because the federal government contributes heavily to the state’s economy, from military bases in Norfolk to the Pentagon in Northern Virginia. Republicans also cite the state’s friendly business climate. It’s one state where the government’s stimulus should play well, especially in the vote-rich suburbs and exurbs of Washington, D.C.
“NOVA is 35 percent of the vote,” a Virginia Democratic operative said. “They don’t want to go to war with Washington. They might want to fix it, but they don’t want to go to war with it.”